We’ve further expanded the definition of AVQ&A—our Monday and Friday discussion prompts—by asking you (and two of our regular contributors) a simple question once per month: What have you read in the past month, or what are you currently reading? If you have suggestions for AVQ&A questions, big or small, you can e-mail them to us here.
April looks great for new book releases. Glen Weldon’s Superman: The Unauthorized Biography got the month off to a great start, and is highly recommended; even for non-comics fans, it’s a fascinating overview of a 75-year-old phenomenon that morphed dozens of times over the years to fit constantly changing commercial demands and developments. Mary Roach’s Gulp continues the run of pop-semi-science books that includes Stiff, Spook, and Bonk; this one’s a “tour” of the alimentary canal, with thoughts on food, taste, how the stomach works, whether constipation killed Elvis, and more. We have reviews coming up for the Neil Gaiman-curated anthology Unnatural Creatures; William Friedkin’s autobiography The Friedkin Connection; Carol Burnett’s book about her daughter, Carrie And Me; and Helene Wecker’s The Golem And The Djinni, which has been getting a lot of positive pre-press. There’s a new David Sedaris essay collection, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls. The subject of the excellent documentary Man On Wire, daredevil Philippe Petit, has a book out about how to tie knots and how it relates to his philosophy, which sounds bizarre, but it’s appropriately called Why Knot? And Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan has a new food book out, called Cooked, that sounds entertaining as well as magnificently pretentious. Let’s just take a look at the opening paragraph of the book blurb:
“Here, he discovers the enduring power of the four classical elements—fire, water, air, and earth—to transform the stuff of nature into delicious things to eat and drink. Apprenticing himself to a succession of culinary masters, Pollan learns how to grill with fire, cook with liquid, bake bread, and ferment everything from cheese to beer. In the course of his journey, he discovers that the cook occupies a special place in the world, standing squarely between nature and culture. Both realms are transformed by cooking, and so, in the process, is the cook.”
Now who could pass that up? But as usual, we’re curious what books you’re most looking forward to in April.
Last month, I noted that I’d just started Double Feature, the debut from Stephen King’s son and Joe Hill’s brother, Owen King. It wound up taking me most of the month to read, largely because it’s so discursive. The opening section is terrific, with the protagonist sacrificing a great deal to make his dream film, including his health and his humanity; the dreadful certainty that something is going to go wrong hangs over the entire thing, and it’s enormously tense. Even so, when the ax falls, it falls with surprising force. But the rest of the book never has that momentum or sense of threat. From there, the story jumps back to cover chunks of the protagonist’s childhood and his parents’ youth, and then it jumps forward to years beyond the first section, and deals with the protagonist’s limp, exhausted aftermath. It’s a well-written book with some extremely well-realized characters—I agree with Kevin McFarland’s review on that—but it feels like a hundred breathless pages of story followed by 300 of backstory and weary denouement, and it rarely pulled me back to it whenever I put it down. After wrapping it up, I moved on to a couple of what a friend and I call Pringles books: light, not much substance, easy to go through a stack of them quickly. Specifically, I just read Peter Clines’ Ex-Heroes and Ex-Patriots, the first two installments in a series about superheroes after the zombie apocalypse. These are really lightweight pop fiction, with a lot of zombie-fighting action. They’re comparable to George R.R. Martin’s rebooted Wild Cards series, starting with 2008’s Inside Straight: a bit grim and focused on real-world detail, but still pretty simple, enjoyable reading. Those aside, though, today I head out on vacation, and I’m taking Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 along with me, and I absolutely can’t wait to dig into that. I’ve been saving it for a trip, and I couldn’t be happier that the wait is over.
I used to be terrible at integrating fiction into my reading regimen. Terrible at reading anything that wasn’t explicitly related to my interests in popular culture, actually—there was a period when I burned through rock bios and the collected writings of older critics, ignoring imaginary worlds and made-up people in a myopic effort to build up my cultural-criticism bona fides. Since recognizing that tendency, I now force myself to alternate between fiction and non-fiction, which is why I put off finishing Simon Reynolds’ Retromania until I wrapped up George Saunders’ Pastoralia, a short-story collection my wife has been telling me I’d love since before she was my wife. She was right: I love the weird, satirical mirror-reality in which Saunders’ stories take place, an exaggerated United States on the edge of dystopia. It would be completely hilarious if not for the occasional flash of recognition of our own world. It’s a collection of unrelated tales connected by warmly realized humans trying to eke out an existence in less-than-ideal circumstances; the concise nerd-revenge fantasy “The End Of FIRPO In The World” plays out like The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao condensed into the space of a few pages. I sandwiched Saunders between the entry in the 33 1/3 series on The Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka—written by Pitchfork editor Mark Richardson in a vintage, gimmicky-but-illuminating style that mimics the record’s four-disc format—and Retromania, in which British music journo Reynolds wonders, through the filters of technology and contemporary trends, whether pop is doomed to be crushed by its past. Reading a passage about how Reynolds has accumulated more LPs than he could ever feasibly listen to, I glanced up from the page to see my own competing “to read” piles of fiction and non-fiction alike, and I felt a twinge of empathy.
Most of what I read falls under the rubric of “ridiculous crap I had to read for work” (or rather, “ridiculous crap I chose to read for work,” in the case of various tell-alls by hip-hop hangers-on and disgruntled former Saved By The Bell castmembers.) During a brief trip to Missouri for the True/False Film Fest, for example, I wrote about Robert Evans’ exquisite masterpiece of cheeseball self-delusion The Kid Stays In The Picture, one of my favorite show-business books of all time. I also wrote up Lawrence Wright’s massive, masterful, scathing expose on L. Ron Hubbard and his twisted legacy, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & The Prison Of Belief, which in turn led me to a book I haven’t written about: Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology And My Harrowing Escape, the tell-all by Jenna Miscavige Hill, the niece of David Miscavige, the controversial, mercurial head of Scientology.
Where Going Clear is epic in its scope and ambition, Beyond Belief focuses on a tiny sliver of the Scientology equation: the hellish upbringing of a headstrong young woman. Hill’s status as Miscavige’s niece didn’t protect her from a gauntlet of psychological abuse enacted by a Scientology leadership that delighted in playing head games with children socialized to be submissive. For better and sometimes worse, prolific ghostwriter Janet Pulitzer captures the immature literary voice of a young, naïve girl who renders her surreal experiences in the fumbling language of a survivor; she’s experienced much in life without a traditional education. Beyond Belief cries out for judicious cutting and is repetitive throughout—Hill’s traumas tend to bleed together into one big ball of psychological warfare, perpetrated by people who should know better. But for the many folks intrigued by Going Clear and mesmerized by L. Ron Hubbard’s legacy in general, it’s a natural next step—or fifth or sixth, given the wealth of interesting literature about Scientology out there.